Maybe the surprise is that nobody did it sooner.
Take a sport that stages highly dramatic competition between attractive, purposeful participants in an episodic cadence. Bring on cameras, microphones, scriptwriters, showrunners and producers.
Viewers will stream.
“Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” five seasons in and an unabashed Netflix hit, established the model with its revved-up docuseries on the highest class of international auto racing. For proof of the power of unscripted action, view Episode 9 of Season 3 and the horrific crash that snapped driver Romain Grosjean’s car in half and enveloped it in flames before he miraculously emerged unscathed 28 seconds later.
“Full Swing” — let’s call it formula 2.0 — shifted the narrative from open-cockpit wonders of aerodynamics that exceed 200 mph to the PGA Tour with an eight-episode series currently streaming on Netflix.
Set aside the fact that nobody on a golf course places their life in danger so long as an errant shot is accompanied by a throaty “Fore!” Otherwise, racing and golf possess strikingly similar elements that can make for good episodic television: a single-entity organization, reasonably interesting participants, a traveling circus schedule and crescendos of climactic conflict on Sunday afternoons.
“You are going to see footage shot a week or two before the episode airs. This show has an opportunity to be part of the current conversation and motivate part of that conversation.”
— Bryan Terry, executive producer of “100 Days to Indy”
The concept also holds true for “Break Point,” this year’s Netflix documentary series that offers a behind-the-scenes look at the tennis players and tournaments of the ATP Tour and WTA Tour. A second season is in the works.
Next up? “100 Days to Indy,” a six-episode series on IndyCar racing directed by Patrick Dimon (College Sports, Inc.) that will premiere April 27 on the CW Network, include footage focused on Sunday’s Grand Prix of Long Beach, and culminate with the 107th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 28.
So, yes, the first five episodes will air before the final episode is even shot the day of the Indy 500. Episode 6 will air June 8. It’s pedal-to-the-metal filming, editing and producing.
“There is this marquee event that has been part of the American fabric for 100 years,” said Bryan Terry, executive producer of “100 Days to Indy.” “We want to respect the longtime Indy fan but also want to make the sport appealing to a new batch of fans.”
Terry freely admits the debt owed to “Drive to Survive,” but believes the immediacy of “100 Days to Indy” could differentiate it from the Formula One series that chronicles races from the previous year.
“We are more of a living, breathing thing within the season,” he said. “You are going to see footage shot a week or two before the episode airs. This show has an opportunity to be part of the current conversation and motivate part of that conversation.”
The Grand Prix of Long Beach is the third race of the season and of the TV series, following the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 5 and the Grand Prix of Texas on April 2. The Grand Prix of Alabama and the Grand Prix of Indianapolis Road Course also take place ahead of the Indy 500.
Long Beach is the first of a handful of street races on the IndyCar schedule. The 1.968-mile course flanked by ocean and palm trees is essentially unchanged since the first Grand Prix in 1975, a Formula 5000 race that attracted nearly 50,000 spectators. It ought to look good on film.
“What Long Beach provides is this wonderful backdrop,” Terry said. “You are on the water with these guys just flying around the track in a way that balances the fearlessness of going all out with the precision of handling road turns.
“What we are hoping is to give people a real understanding of the characters behind what we call Top Gun on the road. It’s this fascinating exercise of athleticism and fearlessness, and we are hoping we do a good job of showcasing that.”
Josef Newgarden and other ‘rock stars’
Timing can be everything. It was always intended that Josef Newgarden would be showcased in “100 Days to Indy.” After all, he drives with Team Penske, which along with Vice Media is producing the series.
Episode 1 carves out a segment showing Newgarden at home with his wife and 1-year-old son, and he says family rescued him from focusing solely on driving, winning and preparing to drive and win from the gym and a sterile room glued to high-tech monitors that simulate racing.
Did it help that he defended his title at the Grand Prix at Texas on April 2 with cameras rolling? Does it help that he is the defending champion at Long Beach? And that he has yet to win the Indy 500 in 11 previous tries?
“I’m trying to do my part,” Newgarden said. “There is a mix of personalities among the drivers that a lot of people aren’t aware of. We will put forth the personalities of IndyCar.”
Newgarden, 32, will attempt to win two in a row at Long Beach for the first time since Alexander Rossi did it in 2018-2019. Sèbastien Bourdais won three in a row from 2005-2007.
“Long Beach is definitely the crown jewel of street course racing in terms of history and prestige,” Newgarden said. “It’s one of the longest-standing events in motor sports, the second-oldest race on the calendar after the Indy 500. You always feel the pressure of wanting to succeed there.”
Newgarden’s Penske teammates Will Power, a decorated veteran who took the IndyCar series title last year and won at Long Beach in 2008 and 2012, and Scott McLaughlin, who was IndyCar Rookie of the Year in 2021, are among drivers Terry describes as “rock stars.” Consider Pato O’Ward, Alex Palou, Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson members of the band. Same with Grosjean, who switched to IndyCar from Formula One after the 2020 season and finished second at Long Beach last year.
Oh, and don’t forget Colton Herta, who grew up in Valencia, won his first IndyCar race at age 18 and at age 23 is the youngest driver on the circuit. His father, Bryan Herta, finished third at Long Beach in 1998 and 1999.
Meet the drivers, start your engines
David Letterman, beefy white beard and all, begins the first episode of “100 Days to Indy” with a paean to the Indy 500, perhaps odd for viewers unaware that the former late-night talk show host of more than three decades also is part-owner of the IndyCar team Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
Like “Drive to Survive,” the episode sets out to humanize participants, focusing on drivers sans helmets and allowing loved ones to express conflicting emotions. Their breadwinner does what he loves and is paid handsomely, yet he is in mortal peril once a race begins. “Alcohol definitely helps,” Scott McLaughlin’s wife, Karly, says to laughs while watching the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on a TV monitor along with family and other wives.
Another episode will focus on O’Ward, who despite a surname from an Irish great-grandfather was born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico, and will enjoy the support of a boisterous contingent of Latino fans at Long Beach. He finished second in the first two races of the 2023 season and was filmed off the track as well.
“The film crew came to Mexico, which was awesome,” he said. “We had lots of fun and they got to really see what my life is when I’m not at the race track. They talked a lot to my mom and sister. . . . I think the series is going to be awesome for IndyCar, awesome for the drivers, and fans are gonna love it.”
Walk of Fame inductees
On a palm-lined sidewalk in Long Beach’s downtown waterfront is a Motorsports Walk of Fame, where since 2006 drivers are honored with the installation of 22-inch bronze medallions. Dan Gurney and Phil Hill were the first inductees, and this year James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay are the 32nd and 33rd members.
Hinchcliffe won the Grand Prix in 2017 and finished third in 2012. He notched his first Indy Lights win at Long Beach in 2010 and now an IndyCar commentator for NBC. Hunter-Reay won the Grand Prix in 2010, won the IndyCar championship in 2012 and the Indy 500 in 2014. He notched 18 wins and 72 top-5 finishes in a 19-year career.